The Myth of the Harvard Jock

The ‘jock’ stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth for many athletes on campus. Some varsity athletes stay in on their Friday nights to do homework; others spend their free time watching movies or playing ping pong. Beyond athletic prowess, there is no common thread among Harvard athletes, who come in all shapes and sizes. The perception, more so than it is inaccurate, is damaging.
By Stephanie Campbell and Lena K. Felton

One Urban Dictionary entry defines “jock” as “US slang for the thick-but-amiable types that always do well socially.” A similar Wikipedia page designates the stereotypical jock as “unintelligent,” “handsome, muscular and athletic,” and “abusing alcohol or drugs.” These stereotypes aren’t shocking; they’ve become hallmark motifs in nearly every aspect of popular culture.

At Harvard, athletes make up about 20 percent of the student body. Oftentimes, they boast visual markers of their athleticism: black Harvard-crested backpacks and sleek warm-up jackets. It’s no secret that many of them are involved in final clubs, fraternities, and sororities as well.

But the ‘jock’ stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth for many athletes on campus. Some varsity athletes stay in on their Friday nights to do homework; others spend their free time watching movies or playing ping pong. Beyond athletic prowess, there is no common thread among Harvard athletes, who come in all shapes and sizes. The perception, more so than it is inaccurate, is damaging.

Harvard’s Definition Of “Jock”

At Harvard, varsity athletes are aware of the universal “jock” stereotype, and understand that its prevalence colors how other students view them.

Jack L. Kelley ’18, a varsity heavy-weight rower, acknowledges that the stereotype on campus is that athletes “study less” and “aren’t as smart.” Abbey R. Frazer ‘17, an ice hockey player, adds that athletes are known to, instead, “spend more time partying and socializing.”

But oftentimes athletes choose Harvard because of its non-stereotypical atmosphere. Alika I. Keene ’16, a varsity soccer player, chose to come to Harvard over “big soccer schools” because “people were driven, conversations were interesting, and every single stereotype that others had about Harvard was incorrect,” she says.

For Kelley, coming to Harvard was a “no brainer” because of its “unparalleled” academics in addition to its impressive rowing team.

Justin T. Fox ’17, a football player, says that athletes make a conscious choice about what kind of college atmosphere they become a part of, just like any other student. “You have to think about it, because if you were really concerned about the social aspect of things, would you have gone to Harvard or would you have gone to some state school?” he asks. “For Harvard standards, we definitely have taken on the role of the ‘Harvard jock,’ but that’s not really a ‘jock,’ anyway.”

And it is hard to pin the label “jock” onto athletes at Harvard; last year, two out of the 24 juniors elected to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa were varsity athletes.

“Traditionally, This Is An Academic Institution”  

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the jock stereotype at Harvard is the notion that athletes don’t care about academics.

“I don’t want to say look down, because that’s too strong, but [non-athletes] don’t hold us in the highest of regards in comparison to others in the university,” Andrew E. Wheeler-Omiunu ’17, a varsity soccer player, says. “Traditionally, this is an academic institution, and it’s hard to break traditions.”

Keene says that she’s heard people “murmur” about the number of athletes in a class, as if that could dictate difficulty levels. But she emphasizes the importance of being engaged, at least, in both her academic and athletic worlds.

“I definitely know that I’m not the smartest Harvard student,” she explains. “I’m probably not even the top 90 percent. But I also don’t hate school. I do find it frustrating when trying to balance everything, but that just comes with the territory.”

Many non-athletes and athletes alike are surprised by the level of academic focus it takes to be on a team. Time management becomes especially crucial with 20 plus hours of practice and games a week.

Lydia E. Burns ’16, a member of the women’s rugby team, emphasizes that playing a varsity sport has actually forced her to be a more efficient worker.

“Some of the girls [on the team] are the smartest people I know,” Burns wrote in an email to FM. “A sport is a huge commitment; it is not for everyone, but I admire those that stick with it and still manage to prioritize school as well and succeed in both realms.”

Kelley agrees; he says that athletes “have to be better with time management.” When one of his non-athlete roommates complained about not having enough hours in the day, his other roommate, a member of the hockey team, suggested he “mix in a sport.”

For the amount of dedication it takes to be involved in both academics and athletics, Fox acknowledges that, in certain cases, athletes have to make a choice between the two. He says that some of his teammates will choose to take on an easier course load while in season.

“Because our schedule is so demanding in season, we have a full semester of Gen Eds or BS classes—at least that’s what I’m doing this semester,” he says.

And others, who choose to to take rigorous classes during season, are forced to make sacrifices. Jake T. Horton ’18, a varsity hockey player, says he spends his Fridays and Saturdays studying in order to “keep [his] head above water.”

While balancing academics and athletics is tough, adding any other time-intensive extra-curriculars is virtually unheard of. Last year, Fox was part of the Harvard LowKeys, an a capella group. He ended up being late to about 20 football practices—more than the entire team combined in the previous two years. “It got to the point where it was like ‘I’m not doing something right,’ so I had to drop [a capella] because I wanted to stay on the team,” he says.

Social Perks?  

For the majority of the week, athletes lift weights, do homework, go to practice, take mid-terms. And, like all students, they look forward to their free time, during which they can forget about their demanding lives.

Wheeler-Omiunu, as a sophomore, has witnessed firsthand the sort of perks afforded to athletes at Harvard. He says that final clubs for athletes, and the punch process in particular, “are so different.”

“If you’re an athlete on the team, you’re through the first round [of punch],” he explains. “It’s completely different. We do have that advantage for final clubs, which are for some people and not for others.”

Fox, on the other hand, doesn’t see many social perks associated with being an athlete. “It’s not like some other school where we would be more respected,” he says. “I guess the thing is that we’re taller, we’re athletic and built, and handsome, so there are the perks of that.”

Frazer says that a typical “going out” night for her teammates consists of pregaming together and going off to “different final clubs.” In some cases, she says, athletes have advantages getting into a club on a Saturday night in addition to getting through the punch process.

If one doesn’t participate, “you just miss an opportunity to get to know your team better and be more of a group,” Frazer says. But if she were to go out more, she thinks she wouldn’t get any work done.

Pieter J. Zenner ’17, a former varsity soccer athlete, started a Harvard chapter of the fraternity Kappa Sigma last year in large part because of his limited social opportunities as a freshman. Because the older guys on the soccer team gravitated towards their final clubs, he says, there were few full-team social outlets.

“Some of [the team] who weren’t in final clubs were, I’m not gonna say fed up, but were looking for an alternative,” Zenner explains. “Those are the guys who are in Kappa Sigma—sophomores and stuff like that.”

A Balancing Act

Practice and game schedules hold precedent over parties, and often dictate if, and when, athletes go out.

Fox explains the phenomenon around the “mini weekend.” In the football off-season, there’s no practice on Wednesday; so, on Tuesday night, his teammates will go out to bars or clubs.

“The guys all get turnt up, just like it’s a Friday night,” Fox says. “And of course we’ll have academics the next day, but academics are never more challenging than football practice.”

There are some social outlets particular to athletic teams, like mixers and all-team parties, many of which involve alcohol. Wheeler-Omiunu explains that, while partying isn’t his first choice activity for a Friday night, he does it because that’s what many of his teammates want to do.

“[If they want to go to a party], that’s where I’m gonna be, because I like spending time with them,” he says. “At the same time, if they just wanna chill and listen to some good music, that’s what I’m about, and I’m definitely gonna be there.”

Wheeler-Omiunu does think that the athletic social outlets are somewhat limited to drinking and partying. “There should be more open-mindedness about how people want to spend their social lives,” he says.

Frazer expresses a similar sentiment. She often feels left out when the girls on the team go out and she chooses not to. “Not to say that I don’t like to have fun, but I like to have fun in different ways,” she says. “They might think it’s boring, but to me it’s enjoyable.”

Burns says that the mixture of athletics and academics no doubt limits her time to socialize.

“I have such hard weeks both academically and with practice and training that when the weekend comes around I mostly just sleep and do homework,” Burns writes in an email.

Ultimately, every student at Harvard can relate to having to sacrifice some activities for others. “Everyone brings something else to table,” Horton says. “Sports are ‘my thing,’ but everyone dedicates their time to some activity.”

This diversity of experience can also be athletes’ favorite part of Harvard, including Keene: “Everyone is so unique and involved with different things, that it's impossible to fit people under one umbrella.”

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